The Importance of Tradition

I once lived with a man who prayed five times a day, fasted for Ramadan, and abstained from drinking alcohol. During a late night conversation this man unexpectedly voiced the opinion that he, like Karl Marx, thought religion to be an “opiate for the masses”; something used to keep people subordinate to some hierarchical structure. Confused, I asked him to explain, and learned that he followed the traditions of Islam in order to maintain a focus on his study of mathematics. The Quran states that one should never enter prayer drunken; he did not drink because he never wanted to enter his mathematics intoxicated. Equations written on our wall in highlighter ink during the middle of the night spoke to his dedication, and explained why he even abstained from a nightcap. Additionally, if his mind became unfocused during the day, the call to prayer would bring him back.

I remain fascinated by this discussion. This man was able to take an ancient tradition loaded with meaning and contributions from innumerable sources and invest a personal vision into its storied past.

Of course I had run into skeumorphic design before. Every time a camera phone takes a picture with the noise of an imaginary shutter exposing film to light I become aware of humanity’s need to mix the familiar with the innovative. The design of new technology often attempts to rescue the very thing it makes obsolete. Guttenberg’s typeface sought to mimic handwriting, and a note taking application on my iPhone looks like a yellow notebook pad. In college I had a digital music player on my PC that looked like a cassette tape. In fact, I call the screen this music player appeared on my “desktop”. Even the language links me to the familiar before propelling me to the innovative.

I can’t help but feel I experienced something more profound in that late night conversation, though. I don’t believe anyone recognizes the importance of a word like “desktop”, or the comfort of a yellow notebook pad, until it becomes obsolete, yet somehow irrepressible. They become comforting once they become useless — linking us to a past we’ve killed with better technology, yet continue to mourn. Religion, however, is not that. Regardless of affiliation, no one would deny the role religion has played historically in creating communities and providing comfort. The third pillar of Islam, Zakat requires annual giving to help comfort those within the community. To take traditions so ubiquitous — traditions that have affected so many people — and find personal meaning in them, as my interlocutor had, made me both aware that this may be the purpose of those traditions, and surprised by his clear recognition of that fact.

It seems like an impossible task; to take something commented on by so many people — something so divisive — and see through to its essential qualities and usefulness. For him the word “religion” (Note: I’m not saying faith) is invested with the same stigmas as it is for many, “an opiate for the masses”. Yet he saw through the meanings we invest in words to some worthwhile principle he applied to life. He dressed his innovations in the robes of an ancient tradition.

He entered the ceremonies with personal faith in mathematics along side the God of Muhammad, but, in some ways, is this not the original purpose of the ceremonies? To have a personal connection to a community of people — to focus on the unique elements of ones humanity that at once bring him together with others while also allowing him to flourish on his own? He may have rediscovered the elements of religion that have allowed it to endure since the earliest forms of civilization. His devotion to mathematics connected him to his colleagues, to his students, and to innumerable unnamed members of the broader mathematical field, while also promoting his unique individual talent. He redefined the traditions for himself, and in so doing tapped into something inveterately human — the need for connectivity, and the need to explore ones individuality simultaneously.

Is that any different than a ruled yellow notebook pixilated on my iPad? From a certain perspective this digital pad is meant to remind me of my inclusion among those who once hand-wrote notes rather than tapped a touch screen, while giving me a forum to venerate and memorialize my individual thoughts — if only for myself. The history of a yellow notepad does not match the history of faith based ceremony, however, and is not laden with interpretations and opposing viewpoints. No wars have ever been fought over college ruled paper. The ceremonies of Religion, so often met with unnecessary derision, or misunderstanding, are human at their core. I cannot say this about a yellow notepad.

Perhaps this conversation so affected me because it forced recognition of those parts of my humanity I ignore when entering ceremonies without the respect they deserve. I had cheated myself when watching eighth graders imitate Whirling Dervishes without the requisite mourning of a deceased friend or mentor; or watched fireworks on the fourth of July without considering bombs illuminating the night sky in war time invoking both fear and hope; or sitting down to a holiday season feast without recognizing the hard-work of an autumn harvest.

Surely, if we find it impossible to abandon a yellow notepad, then we owe something profound to the ceremonies that make us human, and connect us to each other while celebrating our individual pursuits.